The Breakdown | The Women’s Rugby World Cup, a springboard rather than a final destination

JThree things usually make or break a World Cup. Not everyone agrees on the precise order, but brilliance on the pitch, uncertainty of outcome and an emotionally invested host nation are usually the holy trinity. Deliver the lot and any tournament will be remembered, regardless of the weather, political background or other glitzier attractions.

The legacy will still be quite positive if two of the three can be achieved. One is a more difficult but survivable scenario. And none? The ultimate Halloween nightmare for every global sports leader involves one-dimensional procession games, half-empty stadiums and the creeping fear that the eyes of the general public have blurred.

So where does the current Rugby World Cup in New Zealand fit on this unofficial Beaufort scale? It’s too early to be definitive, with the sharp end to the competition still to come, but there were some encouraging snapshots. Queues of locals of all ages winding along the sidewalks outside Whangarei Stadium before Double header from Saturday’s quarter-finalfor example, were not there by chance.

It also helps that so many Kiwis know their rugby, with affordable ticket prices – NZ$10 for adults and NZ$5 for children (about £5 and £2.50 respectively) – another smart move. The day’s experience was both upbeat and friendly and even the pouring rain over the weekend in Auckland couldn’t entirely extinguish the uplifting feeling of brotherhood in the stands and dressing rooms.

Equally important is the progress women’s rugby has made in a relatively short time. Just over 30 years have passed since the inaugural, volunteer-run, nine-day Women’s World Cup in 1991. As recently as 2017, the entire tournament in Belfast attracted a total of 45,412 spectators, an average of 1,514 per game.

This time around, a record 34,235 people showed up at Eden Park on opening day alone.

This World Cup, moreover, is the first to feature professional teams, which is a game-changer in itself. It may be a while before private jets or stretch limos are full of female rugby stars lazily checking their stock portfolios, but the gains in fitness and standards are already evident. You don’t have to be a middle-aged white sportswriter in bad shape to feel regularly humiliated.

And maybe that’s why this tournament should be seen a little differently. It’s like the start of something, a stepping stone rather than the final destination. The next World Cup after this will be in England in 2025 and only then will we truly see how rich the future of women’s rugby can be. The tournament expands to 16 teams, exposure and sponsorship revenue will be significantly increased and the next generation talents of this World Cup will be granted a significantly bigger stage.

By then, it is also to be hoped that the other national unions, the United States, Australia, South Africa and Italy will have reduced the current gap between them and the best in the world. It’s undeniable that there have been too many one-sided scores for comfort, most recently in the quarter-finals where the average margin of victory was 36.25 points. Had England run with anything other than a wet bar of soap or had they missed fewer kicks it would have been even bigger.

If you want, you can also dig into one or two other questionable areas, especially if the organizers should have been more ambitious.

There are bigger cities in New Zealand than Whangarei and bigger venues than the 4,900 capacity Waitakere Stadium in the western suburbs of Auckland where England and Australia played the quarter of Sunday final. For many New Zealanders, this supposed global fiesta might as well be on Saturn.

England's Zoe Aldcroft in the quarter-final with Australia
One-sided scores were plentiful with an average margin of victory in the quarterfinals of 36.25 points. Photograph: Brett Phibbs/PA

That’s why it was such an important own goal to allow the men’s All Blacks to kick off in Japan on Saturday around the same time as the Black Ferns. To complicate the situation, the Tokyo game was a thriller, with the outcome uncertain until the final moments. No prizes for guessing which of the two matches attracted more attention in Auckland pubs on Saturday night.

But wait. The black ferns aren’t finished yet. If they brush past France this Saturday to reach the final of their own event, that could set up an absolute humdinger. A screaming Eden Park, Portia Woodman and Ruby Tui at full throttle, an England team suddenly on the snub? Even those who remain agnostic about women’s rugby would be well advised to tune in.

Perhaps the only caveat is that the Red Roses’ favorite method is something of an acquired taste. Even in dry weather, they can look like a fat All England Club waiter, with all thrift stores being resolutely avoided. This, of course, is entirely their prerogative, but it’s harder to sell the game to neutrals. A heavy diet of driving mauls with barely a hint of adventure in the background is like ordering a pizza and only being served the crust.

It’s an unfortunate juxtaposition because women’s rugby, at this point in its trajectory, needs all the friends, allies, casual admirers and fan girls it can muster. It would certainly help if the semi-finals and the final could help tick the three crucial boxes that every great tournament needs.

There is just enough time to turn a worthy World Cup into a memorable World Cup.

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